World Cup Doesn’t Really Begin Until Knockout Rounds

 

GV157_350AAll is forgiven, all is forgotten.

That first-place finish in the Group of Death? Irrelevant now. All those goals Germany scored, including that 10-spot against Ivory Coast? They mean nothing. Brazil and Japan’s perfect records – and Canada’s not-so-perfect record? It’s as if they never happened.

The knockout rounds, i.e., soccer’s great do-over, begin Saturday at the Women’s World Cup. After two weeks of jockeying for position and points, the final result is all that matters now.

From here on out, it’s win … or go home.

“You have to go after it,” U.S. midfielder Carli Lloyd said Thursday. “This is essentially a final. Everything gets turned up a few notches.”

Much has been made of the “struggles” thus far by Germany and the United States, both looking to become the first team to win three World Cup titles.

After that rout of Ivory Coast, Germany settled for a draw against Norway and looked lackluster against Thailand. Despite what seems like an endless supply of firepower, the Americans have scored a whopping four goals, same as South Korea andColombia.

Brazil, meanwhile, has looked solid. It also really hasn’t played anyone yet. (Sorry South Korea, Spain and Costa Rica, but you know it’s true.)

Really, it’s impossible to judge how good a team is – and how good its chances are of reaching the July 5 final in Vancouver – until its survival is on the line.

“I thought it was great we were in the Group of Death. I think it’s given us the confidence,” Christie Rampone said. “At times is it not pretty? Yeah, but that’s the growing part of being in a World Cup and getting better within the games. And getting better each game.

“Once you get through group stage, you think it’s more stress,” she added. “But I think we do better under the pressure.”

History backs her up. Since the Women’s World Cup began in 1991 and women’s soccer became an Olympic sport in 1996, the Americans have never failed to reach the semifinals.

Think about that. At every World Cup, at every Olympics, the U.S. has been one of the last four teams standing. No other team in the world can say that.

Oh, and of those 11 tournaments, the U.S. has won six. Not a bad percentage.

“I think that’s a big separation we still have with some teams, that fight, that will to get it done,” Lloyd said. “Players stepping up in big moments.”

If you’re not sure what she’s talking about, Google Abby Wambach, Brazil and World Cup quarterfinals. Or Lloyd, Brazil and Olympics. Or Lloyd, Japan and Olympics, for that matter.

Former U.S. coach Pia Sundhage once said it was a uniquely American trait, that never-say-die attitude. So, too, the added swagger the Americans exude the deeper in a tournament they go. They know what it’s like to play in those games, and they also know they can win them.

When Rampone talks about it taking seven games to win the World Cup, that’s not a wish list. It’s a to-do list.

“It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish,” Lloyd said. “And I think that with each game, we’re getting better and better as a group. There’s no doubt in my mind we’ll be peaking at right moment, and that’s the most important thing.”

The World Cup may have begun two weeks ago, but the tournament is just getting started.

A look at some of the biggest games in the Round of 16:

US-Colombia: The Americans played Colombia in the group stage of both the 2011 World Cup and the 2012 Olympics, winning both games easily. Though Colombia is greatly improved — just ask France – its hopes of giving the U.S. a better game this time took a big blow when goalkeeper Sandra Sepulveda was suspended for the round of 16 for picking up her second yellow card of the tournament. Sepulveda was brilliant against France, and Colombia doesn’t make the round of 16 without her.

Brazil-Australia: Australia has been one of the surprises of the tournament, and its speed and size could cause problems for a Brazil defense that has looked suspect. This will be a good barometer of how good Brazil really is.

Germany-Sweden: Germany has had the most impressive offense of the tournament by far, with four goals by Anja Mittag and three by Celia Sasic. Sweden’s defense struggled with Nigeria’s speed in its opener, but has been much steadier since then. Its ability to cut off wide swaths of the field could be a problem for Germany.

China-Cameroon. The U.S. would play the winner of this game if it advances. Also could be a good measuring stick for the growth of the game. World Cup debutante Cameroon is only the second African nation to reach the knockout rounds, and its fast-paced attack and solid defense has been both surprising and entertaining.

This article was republished with permission from the original author, Nancy Armour, and the original publisher, USA Today.

 

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